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Are You Promotion or Prevention-Focused?

Being promotion or prevention-focused affects everything about you.

Key points

  • Those who "play to win" have a promotion focus. Those who play "not to lose" have a prevention focus.
  • Whether one has a promotion or prevention focus affects many areas of life, including values, life strategies, and attitudes toward success.
  • Products, activities, and ideas can appeal to either promotion or prevention motivation.

The following is an excerpt from Focus: Using Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence.

Most people in every workplace, classroom, or community on the planet belong to one of two camps. In Camp #1, there’s Jon—the kind of person that some people might call “difficult,” though probably he (and we) would prefer the term “skeptic.” It is a challenge to get to the end of a sentence in Jon’s presence without having him interrupt you to tell you how the beginning of it was all wrong. He is immaculate in his appearance, chooses his words with precision, and never procrastinates. He is, by nature, a pessimist (the defensive kind that we describe later). Try to tell him things are going to work out just fine and watch as he gets visibly uncomfortable with your reckless and naïve attitude.

At this point, Jon is probably starting to sound pretty annoying to work with, and there is no denying that he can be on occasion. But once you have gotten to know him, it’s easy to see why he works the way he does—he is determined not to make mistakes. In fact, just the idea of making a mistake upsets him. (Did we mention that much of the time he is at least a little anxious? He is.) As a result, his work is usually flawless.

In Camp #2, there’s Jon’s colleague Ray—the Anti-Jon. We’re not sure that Ray has ever actually worried about anything. He is just as smart, and just as motivated, but he goes about his work (and his life) with a relentless optimism that is impossible not to envy. He doesn’t sweat the small stuff—he’s all about the Next Big Idea. But sometimes, that sweat-free existence leads to trouble. He has been forced to label most of his possessions “If Found, Call Ray 555-8797” because he is always forgetting where he left them.

Ray’s work is creative and innovative—he’s not afraid to go down untraveled paths and take intellectual risks, even though some of them end up being time-wasting dead ends. But appearance-wise….well, Jon once remarked during a meeting that Ray’s shirt was so wrinkled it looked like he had been keeping it in his pants pocket all morning. Maintenance is not Ray’s thing.

On the surface, Jon and Ray are two talented, hard-working individuals who have the same goal: to do their jobs exceptionally well. When you want to influence someone else—whether you are a psychologist, manager, marketer, teacher, or parent—you usually start by trying to figure out what that person wants and then use that knowledge to understand and predict their behavior. But if Jon and Ray want the same thing, then why is everything about the way they pursue it so different?

Two Kinds of Good (and Bad): Promotion and Prevention

People like Ray, as the old song goes, “accentuate the positive.” They see their goals as opportunities for gain or advancement. In other words, they are focused on all the great things that will happen for them when they succeed—the benefits and rewards. They “play to win.” When people pursue this kind of “good,” we call it having a promotion focus.

Studies from our lab (and many other labs now) show that promotion-focused people respond best to optimism and praise, are more likely to take chances and seize opportunities, and excel at creativity and innovation. Unfortunately, all that chance-taking and positive thinking makes them more prone to error, less likely to completely think things through, and usually unprepared with a Plan B in case things fail. For a promotion-focused person, what’s really “bad” is a non-gain: a chance not taken, a reward unearned, a failure to advance. They would rather say yes and have it blow up in their faces than feel like they let opportunity’s knock go unanswered.

Others, like Jon, tend to see their goals as opportunities to meet their responsibilities and to stay safe. They consider what might go bad if they don’t work hard enough to achieve. They don’t play to win—they play to not lose. They want, more than anything else, to feel secure. When people pursue this kind of “good,” they have what we call a prevention focus.

In our studies, we find the prevention-focused to be more driven by criticism and the looming possibility of failure (if, for example, they don’t work hard enough) than by applause and a sunny outlook. Prevention-focused people are often more conservative and don’t take chances, but their work is also more thorough, accurate, and carefully planned. Of course, too much caution and hypervigilance for error pretty much kills off any potential for growth, creativity, and innovation. But for the prevention-focused, the ultimate “bad” is a loss you failed to stop: a mistake made, a punishment received, a danger you failed to avoid. They would much prefer to say no to an opportunity than end up in hot water. Whoever first said “the devil you know is better than the one you don’t” would have earned Jon’s enthusiastic approval.

Researchers (ourselves included) have been hard at work for 20 years, exploring the causes and consequences of promotion and prevention focus in every aspect of our lives. We know that while everyone is concerned with both promotion and prevention, most people have a dominant motivational focus—the one they use to approach most of life’s challenges and demands. It’s also true that focus can be situation-specific: some people are promotion-focused at work, but more focused on prevention when it comes to their kids. Everyone is promotion-focused when they line up for a lottery ticket and prevention-focused when they line up for a flu shot.

Hundreds of studies later after that initial insight, it’s become clear that the kind of “good” you are pursuing affects everything about you—what you pay attention to, what you value, the strategies you choose to use (and which ones actually work for you), and how you feel when you succeed or fail. It affects your strengths and your weaknesses, both personally and professionally. It affects how you manage your employees and how you parent your children (and why your spouse’s decisions and preferences can seem so odd). Without exaggeration, your focus affects just about everything.

In Part 1 of FOCUS, we’ll explain the nature of the promotion and prevention focuses and how they work, and you will come to understand yourself and the people around you in a whole new way. Some things will make sense that never did before. You’ll finally see why it’s so hard to be good with both the big ideas and with the details. Why the “spontaneous” one in any couple usually isn’t the one who balances the checkbook. Why you either underestimate how long everything will take, or you overestimate how difficult it will be—and why someone different from you can seem so strange. You’ll understand the choices you’ve made, the experiences you are drawn to, and why you tend to prefer one brand of product to another. And you’ll be able to use that knowledge to enhance your well-being and be more effective in your life.

Increase Your Influence

It will be especially valuable for you to understand promotion and prevention if you are in the business of influencing others—if a big part of what you do every day involves informing, persuading, and motivating. (Note that this definition of “influence” applies to teachers, coaches, and parents as much as it does to marketers, managers, and advocates. Come to think of it, most of us—in one way or another—are engaged in the ‘business’ of influence. Unless you live alone on a desert island, in which case you can try using this book to break open your coconuts.)

Products, activities, and ideas can appeal to either promotion or prevention motivation, depending on the kind of “good” or “bad” they focus on. Some are obvious: seat belts, home security systems, and mammograms are essentially about avoiding loss (prevention focus), while vacation homes, lottery tickets, and facelifts are about potential gains (promotion focus). Other products can satisfy either promotion or prevention motivation, depending on how you talk about them. When toothpaste is about a “whiter smile” and “fresh breath,” it’s a promotion-focused product. But when it’s about “avoiding cavities and gingivitis,” it’s all about prevention. As the studies we share with you in Part 2 of FOCUS will show, you can learn to speak the motivational language of the person you are trying to influence.

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